Oh, no! Not ANOTHER Yeats poem!
Yep. I like Yeats and I’m doing all the work here, so I call the shots. This time, though, after you’ve read the poem but before you read my comments, stop a minute and try to figure the thing out. It’s not the easiest poem in the world, but it’s not all that difficult either.
by William Butler Yeats
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, strands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like a stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
Okay, before we get to the poem proper, a little historical background. The reference to aeroplanes and Zeppelins (Zeppelin is always capitalized because it was named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, its inventor) locate this poem firmly in WWI. They were, at the time, terror weapons, since they could drop bombs on you even if the enemy couldn’t get an army anywhere near your city. Which was particularly terrifying in London, where Yeats lived off and on (why? Because he was a literary man, and that’s where all the poetic action was), which previously had always been protected by the English Channel. When planes were spotted (or, on cloudy nights, heard) headed for London, the entire city would be “blacked out” so that with luck they couldn’t be found. Very scary for the citizenry.
To work! “Hysterical women” (which is a little sexist, but cut the guy some slack; he had the Girlfriend From Hell) immediately establishes whose side he’s on. This is a defense of poetry. How can you waste your time writing science fiction, the hysterical women say, when Homeland Security has declared a Code Orange Alert?
So Bill sneers: You think you’ve got it bad? There’s nothing special about our suffering. So many terrible things have happened that tragedy “cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.” Entire civilizations have fallen, and all their works been destroyed! Yet those who came after them rebuilt and knew joy.
Then he shows them an ancient Chinese carving. Note the flaws, he says. See how the artist has made them part of a work of beauty. Similarly, “Lear” and “Hamlet” take real tragedy and make something beautiful of it. The actors playing the parts are not miserable; they’re having a great time.
You knew, I hope, that “gay” here predates the meaning “homosexual,” much less “lame.” It pops up four times in the poem, gaining significance each time, until the poem concludes with the word, as good as saying: Here’s the moral. Get it?
Yeah, we get it. And it’s not that old art-is-immortal wheeze that Yeats liked to work either. (The lines about Callimachus told us that.) Artists are gay. The tragedians are gay. The survivors are gay. The ancient Chinese men are gay. So should we be. By gay Yeats means not just “merry,” mind you, but filled with an artist’s zest for life. The tiny figures have wrinkles about their eyes -- they’ve known tragedy. But they don’t let it crush them. That would be giving it more than its due.
So there you are. Eyes wide open, but happy anyway.
Maybe Next, but in any case Soon: Different War, Different Poet, Same Horror.